These Minnesotans are getting rid of their lawns. But why?
Home & Gardening

These Minnesotans are getting rid of their lawns. But why?

Meleah Maynard said goodbye to the grass in her Minneapolis yard and never looked back. Her neighbor Brenda Schultz also ditched most of the grass for drought-tolerant flowers, shrubs and trees that are also bird-, bee- and butterfly-friendly.

“It’s just the right thing to do for pollinators and to do away with chemicals,” Schultz said. Plus, “I just didn’t want to mow.”

The neighbors are among a growing movement of those turning to no- or less-grass lawns. While a carpet of green has long been the standard for American homes, according to the National Wildlife Federation, 12% of U.S. adults plan to convert part of their lawns to natural or native landscapes this year.

Going “lawnless” is seen as an eco-conscious alternative to the No Mow May or Less Mow May movements. Although well-intentioned, No Mow May began in the U.K., where native dandelions, henbit and chickweed benefit their native bee population. But, depending on your region, it might be more ideal to mow less in May rather than not at all.

“It is not a one-size-fits-all approach as U.S. growing zones vary significantly,” stated the Wildlife Federation study. “While reducing the amount you mow can be a great first step, high grass can unintentionally promote the growth of invasive species that may outcompete native flora.”

Instead, reducing the size of one’s lawn — and filling it with plants — is becoming a sustainable option. Benefits also include reducing water usage and the use of fertilizers and herbicides.

Cory Barton, owner and garden designer of Twin Cities-based Grateful Beds, said those wanting lawn-free yards now account for half of her business. With this type of landscape design showing no signs of slowing down, Barton said it’s an exciting time to be creative.

“Lawns are a relaxing thing for your eye and you can design your gardens so you can have that same experience [without grass],” she said.

And if these Twin Cities yards are any indication, there’s more than one way to create a lawn-less landscape.

An urban woodland

You can spot designer Cory Barton’s work in numerous front yards — good-looking no-lawn to very-little-lawn designs that look casual and carefree, stylish but not styled.

In Charlotte “Shotsie” Forsythe’s small front yard in Minneapolis, Barton used three understory trees that provide habitat for pollinators: redbud, weeping larch and Golden Shadows pagoda dogwood.

The garden designer also likes to throw in bold statement plants to add architectural interest. For Forsythe’s garden, she chose oversized foliage such as deep green rodgersia and black-green ligularia, with mysterious-looking purple undersides.

Such foliage is planted alongside more low-key pulmonaria, pachysandra, golden creeping Jenny and hostas. The result is a charming woodland vignette the Forsythes can view from their porch, Barton said.

For anyone starting out, the garden designer suggested planting foliage with varying textures and creating a consistent palette to avoid a “cacophony of color.” For example, color combinations such as chartreuse-green-blue, red-purple-blue, or yellow-red-orange work well together.

Barton also likes to use paths, water features and seating to welcome and lure visitors no matter the size of a space. “[Create a] background, foreground, height, mystery — even in a small garden,” she said. Then repeat plants “with a few showstoppers for drama.”

Manicured to the max

Brenda Schultz removed all the grass in her front yard and most of her backyard (she kept only a small square patch). When it came to landscaping, she took inspiration from European gardens with manicured hedges.

“I worked for Medtronic for a number of years and I used to travel a lot. They sent me over to Switzerland for a number of years, England, France, Germany,” Schultz said. “I really loved that four-square design and so that’s what I did.”

The master gardener uses boxwood for hedges to create structure. She then fills the center of each square with hydrangea trees and perennials such as daylilies and, a favorite, astilbe, “because the rabbits don’t eat them.”

Schultz also recommends native plants such as baptisia and Joe-Pye. They “have a deep root system that can take drought better than other types of perennials,” she said.

A tiered approach

Growing under old burr oaks, garden author Meleah Maynard and her husband Mike’s shady lawn was struggling and, between that and the master gardener’s enthusiasm for all things plants, they decided to hand-strip all of the grass from their front yard. “We didn’t want to use synthetic fertilizers and weedkillers to maintain it to the standards of the time,” Meleah said.

Mike, a 3-D artist, built paths and changed the elevation to create visual interest and convenient access around the garden. Next, they sourced plants from neighbors who were giving them away.

“We didn’t have to buy anything,” Meleah said.

Under the oak canopies, they added native pagoda dogwood and nannyberry. For structure, they planted perennials like black snakeroot and goatsbeard throughout the garden.

“They quickly grow tall and shrub-like and bloom with long-lasting beautiful white flowers that bees love to visit, and are just a mainstay of the whole garden,” she said.

Wild ginger, geranium, lady’s mantle, astilbe, hostas and periwinkle cover all the ground beneath the understory trees, eliminating the need for mulch and choking out most weeds. In the fall, they grind up the oak leaves and toss them into the beds to feed the soil.

Maynard’s yard includes a sign showing that it is a Certified Wildlife Habitat a designation given by the National Wildlife Federation for scapes that provide “basic habitat element needed for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover and places to raise young.”

Her advice for people wanting to lose their lawn is to start small, take it slow and have a rough sketch in mind. “I would make a plan for where I wanted trees and shrubs, where the paths would go, before I filled it in with other plants,” Meleah said.

Rhonda Hayes is a Twin Cities-based Extension Master Gardener, writer and author of “Pollinator Friendly Gardening.”